How Iraqi Jews fell in love with the East

Amba – Indian mango pickle – has long been a favourite with Iraqi Jews, and now is ubiquitous in Israel. Jewish merchants first introduced the condiment into Iraq from India, but their trading networks, pioneered by David Sassoon in 19th century Bombay, extended into Singapore, Indonesia and China. This Haaretz article by Sasson Somekh is from 2002 but the information within has not dated.   (With thanks: Dominique, Albert)

“It Happened on Friday,” a short story by Iraqi author Abd al-Malik Noori, written sometime around 1950, opens with a young boy tucking into “sammoon and `amba,” purchased from a vendor outside a Baghdad movie theater, on his day off from school. Noori describes how the spicy, yellow `amba streaks the boy’s cheeks and chin, and drips down his shirt. `Amba, a pickled mango condiment, is a familiar sight in Israel, too. Brought to this country by the Jews of Iraq, bowls of it are prominently displayed at shwarma and felafel stands. Sammoon is a diamond-shaped bread filled with `amba that is sold on the streets of Baghdad.

The iconic Ship mango pickle (amba) from India, a staple of every Iraqi-Jewish table
This scene has remained etched in my mind because it reminds me of my own childhood in Iraq. On Friday mornings, I used to pass by the Ghazi movie theater, not far from my house, and look on, wild with envy, as other boys, most of them Muslim, feasted on sammoon and `amba. I was not allowed to join them because my mother warned me over and over not to touch the `amba sold by street vendors. It was teeming with disease-carrying germs, she said, and anyway, why would I want to eat that “fake, contaminated” stuff when we had a barrel of the genuine article, produced by the Mancherchee Manekchee Poonjeajee company of Bombay, sitting at home?

Even so, watching the boys with their sammoon and `amba never failed to whet my appetite and, needless to say, I did disobey my mother on occasion, tasting of that forbidden fruit. The heavenly flavor of `amba on fresh-baked sammoon lingers on my tongue to this day.

The pungent odor of `amba, one of the distinctive smells of Baghdad, also symbolizes the prominent culinary link between Iraq and the Indian continent. Israel came next: Iraqi Jews opened small factories in Israel and began to produce `amba, the main ingredients being slices of mango pickled in a sauce flavored with curry powder and other sharp spices.

When I moved with my family to Ramat Gan in 1955, the place was full of Jews from Baghdad, many of them residing in the neighborhood of the Rama movie theater. Above one of the food stands was a sign in gigantic Arabic script which read “`Amba Hodit” (Indian `amba) – advertising the fact that the `amba sold there was “authentic,” which is to say “Indian,” and not some local imitation.

In 1991, during the Gulf War, when several Iraqi Scud missiles happened to fall in parts of Ramat Gan that have a large Iraqi Jewish population, the joke going around was that the Scuds had been attracted by the smell of the `amba.

But the truth is, the Iraqi-Indian connection, especially with regard to the Jews of Baghdad and southern Iraq, went far beyond Indian `amba. From the time I was a child, I knew that the Jews of Baghdad and the port city of Basra had satellite communities in various parts of India and environs. At home, I often heard the names of relatives and friends who were working or living in India, particularly in Bombay, Calcutta and Poona, but also on the island of Java (today part of Indonesia) and in Singapore.

There were branches of the community in Manchester and London, but these were actually offshoots from the Iraqi Jewish communities in Asia, who began to send their sons or representatives to open offices in important centers of commerce in England at the end of the 19th century.

Most of the offspring of David Sassoon, known as the “Rothschilds of the East,” moved from India to Great Britain for business purposes, but went on to achieve fame in other spheres, too. Philip Sassoon, a grandson, was a member of the British Parliament and served as undersecretary of state for air in the 1920s and `30s. Siegfried Sassoon (note the Germanic name!) was one of England’s leading poets between the two world wars.

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One Comment

  • I grew up on umba. Never know that Ashkanasis had no idea what it was until later on in life


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